June 11, 2017

Parachuting through Life

Last week I saw the play “Ripcord” at the Huntington Theater in Boston, a hilarious comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire, and one of the rare plays that features life among the older set. Ignore the unrealistic depiction of assisted living—the playwright does not seem to distinguish between assisted living facilities and nursing homes—or the mischaracterization of who live in assisted living—the play features two women who are entirely too vigorous to require assisted living, let alone the nursing-home-like facility in Ripcord. It’s nonetheless a vivid, if exaggerated portrait of some of the poignant struggles of older life. Ripcord introduces us to two of the zaniest and most memorable elderly fictional characters in recent memory, Abby and Marilyn, forced by circumstance to become roommates.

Both Abby and Marilyn, in their own very different ways, need to come to terms with troubled relationships. Marilyn was married to an alcoholic and perhaps abusive man; Abby’s only son is a drug addict from whom she has long been estranged. Both women find themselves in a new phase of life and have to adapt to straitened circumstances, a task that Marilyn performs with grace and Abby with vitriol. But redemption comes for both of them, as Marilyn’s ability to see the good in everyone, from the aide at the facility to her lugubrious roommate finally rubs off on Abby, and Abby’s insistence on telling-it-like-it-is allows Marilyn to acknowledge and accept the flaws in her marriage.

In its eccentric and sometimes over-the-top fashion—the “ripcord” of the title refers to the cord the two older women must pull to open their parachute while skydiving—this play brings to life one of the major insights of contemporary geriatrics: at least as important as pills and procedures for a good quality of life in old age is a robust social network. In the end, it is not fame or fortune that mark a life as having been worth living, but the relationships we forge with others.

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